In the same boat: discipleship in Mark’s gospel

Today my wife and I had the privilege of listening to Jacob Cherian of SABC in our cell group. He is currently doing his doctoral studies (almost finished). And importantly, we both enjoyed what he was saying: it challenged us to think more deeply about the Bible and at the same time, what he was saying, was not distant, it could be understood.

The starting thrust was that we need to understand each gospel as a unique work which requires us to understand it in its own terms. For seminary students this is nothing new, but I know that in local churches we tend to amalgamate the message to make all gospels basically say “one story” of Jesus. This is hardly the case. Because (as we saw these past few weeks with Jacob, and even today) each gospel has a unique perspective about Jesus and must be seen/understood in the way each author intended it to be understood. If we amalgamate the story, we run the risk of missing the point.

We started the study by remembering the three boat scenes in Mark’s gospels. In each of these events, we see that the disciples just did not understand who Jesus was or the implications of what he was doing.

Mark 4:35-41 (Jesus calms the storm and the disciples are afraid), Mark 6:45-52 (Jesus walks on water and the disciples are afraid) and Mark 8:13-21 (when the disciples forget to bring bread and don’t understand Jesus’ teaching).

The disciples being the closest to Jesus and his work should have been the first to understand and yet they don’t, and Jesus even scolds (rebukes) them by using rhetorical questions. The last passage in Mark 8 was particularly scathing as Jesus asked, “do you still not see or understand? Are you hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears to hear but fail to hear? and don’t you remember?…” (8:17-18)

The key point Jacob drew out was “do you still not see… do you have eyes but fail to see” the key idea being that Jesus seemed to be saying that the disciples were blind!

Now that was not the point… it was just the introduction. The real study was about being blind and seeing. Because right after this last boat story… Mark has the story of the Blind Man at Bethsaida who is healed in a two stage process. (Mark 8:22-26). The question to ask is… couldn’t Jesus have cured this man in one stage like he did for everyone else? Why did he take two steps? And why is Mark telling us this at this moment in the narrative? (b/c each gospel is ordered differently from the other gospels.

The answer lies between Mark 8:22 through to Mark 10:52. The closes passage in Mark chapter 10 (46-52) is the story of a man who is healed in one stage… and Jacob particularly emphasised that they were book-ends… ie. the two sight-healing (one that occurs slowly… and one that occurs immediately).

This structure is exciting… and filled with possibilities… but already my seminary mind was thinking of answering non-seminary people why we need to think like this. We need to understand the gospel structure, because the gospel writers were often quite good writers and their points were made not simply by the content that was directly in front of the reader, but in also the connections, the themes, the not-so-obvious allusions. There are many examples… this being just one of them.

Back to the study… what we see between these book ends… is Jesus’ teaching about his death. For the first time Jesus starts talking about his death to his disciples and his disciples just do not understand. Yet Jesus again and again (it is recorded three times) tells his disciples that he is going to die. The disciple’s reactions as soon as Jesus said he was going to die are humourous and even absurd. Peter rebukes Jesus (8:32), they argue about who is the greatest (9:33-34) and two of his disciples even ask that they be ‘seated’ at the right/left of Jesus in glory 10:35-39). At the end of all this we have one of the clearest mission statement of Jesus in Mark’s gospel; “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serv, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:45).

Now of course when Bartimaeus gets his sight in 8:46-52… it doesn’t mean that the disciples understand, but rather Mark (the author) has finally made his clear statement about Jesus’ mission. For post-resurrection believers, this is the climax of the ‘teaching’ lesson… Jesus’ self-proclamation of why he came on earth… and how we must follow him.

All this, Jacob our teacher said, was Mark’s way of teaching us discipleship. He was teaching us that discipleship is not simply enjoying God but a very possible life of suffering and certainly leading to the cross.

This is substantiated as chapters 11-15 lead inextribly to Jesus’ actual death… it’s almost as the teacher has said that there is not much left to do but actually do what he came to do… to die for all humanity.

Interestingly… even as John and James had requested to sit in the right/left of Jesus in glory… Mark records that two robbers were crucified along with Jesus… “one to his right and one on his left.” (15:27) This is an almost exact similar structure to James/John’s request… only glory… and seated… are replaced with the crucifixion! What an example of Mark’s point; that the cross it the centre of Jesus’ ministry… and Jesus identifies with transgressors. (15:28 in the NIV).

There is of course a lot more to be said… but this is just an example of how reading the Bible thoroughly brings us deeper into what the author is actually saying and possibly closer to Jesus’ message (at least in a new/forceful way).

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Passage for this Season

Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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